California Child Custody and Visitation Overview

In California, child custody and visitation arrangements can be decided in two main ways: jointly by the parents with approval from a judge, or if the parents cannot agree, by the judge alone, based on evidence.

In both instances, judges are required to form their decisions on "the best interest of the child." This means they have some flexibility as they consider the health, safety, and welfare of each child included in a case.

Read on for an overview of child custody in California, keeping in mind that some practices vary by county.

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Types of custody

Two types of custody exist: legal and physical.

Legal custody is the right and responsibility to make decisions about the health, education, and welfare of a child. It can be held by one parent (sole legal custody) or both (joint legal custody).

In joint legal custody, both parents can make decisions, ideally making major ones together. A judge can specify decisions that must be left to one parent or made together. If they settle (details below), parents can also specify these decision-making rights in their parenting plan.

Physical custody refers to who takes care of a child. Joint physical custody means the child lives with both parents for significant periods, but not necessarily equal periods. In sole physical custody, a child lives primarily with one parent and spends significantly less time (or no time) with the other.

California prefers joint legal and physical custody when in the best interest of the child, but courts often award sole legal and physical custody. Many times, one parent gets sole physical custody, but shares joint legal custody with the other.

Non-custodial parents still have the right to access to their child’s school, medical and other records.

Why settling is encouraged

California courts and custody professionals encourage parents to come to an agreement whenever possible. Settling saves the parents time and money, keeps them in charge of deciding what’s best for their children, and prevents further backlogging the overburdened court system.

For these reasons, if parents choose to litigate, California requires they attend court-provided mediation early in the process in the hope they can work out their disputes before a trial. Legal proceedings can come to an end at any time if both parties sign an agreement that is then approved by a judge.

Parents who don’t want to go to court can try to reach an understanding via private mediation, collaborative law, or informal negotiation.

Types of cases

Before the court can make decisions about child custody and visitation, you must open a family law case.

The case might be a divorce, legal separation or annulment. Alternatively, you can file a Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Children (regardless of whether you are married to the other parent). You can also request custody or visitation when you file for a domestic violence restraining order or open a paternity case.

Equal treatment of parents

Courts do not take a parent’s sex into account when making custody orders; the law treats mothers and fathers equally. Courts are also prohibited from considering a parent’s sexual orientation, race, immigration status, religion, physical disability or income, except in compelling circumstances.

Instead, courts prefer parenting arrangements that give children frequent contact with both parents, unless this isn’t in the best interest of the children or the parents agree on an alternative. If physical custody is awarded only to one parent, it often goes to the parent most likely to allow the child ongoing communication with the other.

If custody is awarded to neither parent, preference then goes to the person or people with whom the child has lived.

Length of custody proceedings

If a case proceeds to trial without settlement, it’s likely to take a year or more from the initial filing to the final order, depending on its complexity. But parents can reach an agreement and bring the process to an end at any time.

California courts try to speed up litigation by giving custody cases preference over other civil disputes for trial date assignment, with a few exceptions.

Custody decided through private mediation or collaborative law often proceeds much faster, since it happens outside of court and is designed for parents who begin with some common ground. Two to three months is a typical duration for mediation in California, unless parents are especially divided on issues. Collaboration often takes six to nine months to reach a final agreement.

Another alternative that can have a faster timeline is using a private judge. Private judges estimate their cases take about 10 percent less time than cases heard in public courtrooms.

Costs to expect

Child custody disputes are expensive, especially in states that have high costs of living, like California. The more parents can compromise, the less money they will have to spend fighting.

Attorney fees vary widely based on location, experience and more; expect to pay between $100 and $600 an hour. For straightforward cases, some legal offices may offer a flat fee, usually of several thousand dollars. If your case goes all the way to trial, you’re not likely to pay less than $10,000 to your legal representative.

In some instances, the court decides one parent should pay all or part of the other’s attorney fees. And occasionally children need their own attorneys, whose fees the parents usually split (depending on the court’s order).

Other charges may arise during litigation. If the judge orders an official custody evaluation, it may cost anywhere from $500 to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on its duration (again the court determines how parents split the payment, if one pays it all, or if neither is able). Expert witnesses, if you choose to use them, are also generally paid by the hour. If you use a private judge, hourly rates are usually slightly more than that of family law attorneys in the area.

Settling through private mediation is generally cheaper, as mediators tend to have lower hourly rates than family law attorneys, and parents typically split the cost. Collaborative law also has the potential to cut costs, since everyone involved commits to avoiding trial.

Many attorneys, mediators, evaluators and other professionals offer discounted rates or work for free in special cases. If you cannot afford to pay, call local offices or contact a legal help center to see what your options are.

Representing yourself

You are not required to have an attorney. In fact, in many counties, the majority of parents in court over child custody represent themselves. However, because law is complex and attorneys have extensive training, experts do not recommend self-representation.

If you do want to litigate on your own, familiarize yourself with all the resources and support available to parents seeking custody, or consider hiring a attorney to work on specific aspects of your case (called limited-scope representation).

In collaborative law, attorneys are required. In private mediation, on the other hand, parents often don't use lawyers because the mediator serves as a neutral party looking for a solution acceptable to both parents.

If you and the other parent reach an agreement on your own, it’s recommended you have your paperwork looked over by a professional.

Children in court

Kids who are mature enough are able to express their wishes to the court regarding custody arrangements.

Some superior courts allow children 12 and older to weigh in, while others rarely hear testimony from children of any age to protect them from getting caught up in parental fighting. Check with your superior court as to its policy. In no case can a child be required to share his or her opinion.

If your child is not testifying, they should not be in the courtroom.

Some counties ― like Los Angeles, Orange and San Mateo ― offer free child care while parents are in court, to prevent kids from having to remain still and quiet for long periods while adults discuss topics that may scare or confuse them.

Confidentiality

Court files in general are public records. However, in family law cases, certain documents remain confidential, such as child custody recommendations and evaluations. These are only accessible to a handful of people, including the parties and their lawyers.

You can also request confidentiality for other documents, but courts do not grant such requests easily.

Separation of church and state

California family courts do not generally make decisions regarding religious issues. Judges will typically only restrict a parent's religious activities if they are shown to cause harm to the child.

Some families prefer to decide family law issues, especially divorce, through religious arbitration. In these cases, religious representatives acts as an arbitrator ― an independent body officially appointed to settle a dispute.

California custody laws

For more details on custody law, see Division 8 of the California Family Code.

Staying organized

The process of deciding custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple custody and visitation schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you’re prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

Make My Parenting Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

Make My Plan